Justice for teacher kept in jail for 13 months on false rape charge

Image: 123RF/thawornnurak

A teacher who spent 13 months behind bars after being wrongfully charged with the rape of a nine-year-old girl has won a lawsuit against the police minister.

Patrick Buthelezi was arrested after a nine-year-old pupil at his school claimed he had sexually assaulted her, though it was later revealed she only made this claim after a beating from her aunt. Evidence later showed there was no sign of penetration and DNA tests exonerated him.

But now he has won a damages and costs order for his legal expenses at the Pietermaritzburg High Court, though the amount is yet to be determined.

Buthelezi sued the minister after the investigating officer and the prosecutor were found to have kept crucial evidence from the court during his bail application. 

It remains unclear whether the two state officials were acting out of incompetence or negligence.

Judge Mahendra Chetty laid out in great detail the issues with the investigation and subsequent prosecution.He expressed concern about how both the prosecutor and the investigating officer failed in their duty to uphold Buthelezi’s rights as an accused.

Buthelezi handed himself over to the police on November 21 2011 after the police told him he was accused of raping a nine-year-old pupil at Isidingo School in Umlazi. While he repeatedly denied the possibility that the incident had occurred, he agreed to hand himself over at the Bhekithemba police station.

Despite the child claiming she had been penetrated, the medical examination showed no damage to her genitals or hymen – but the court was told the opposite.

A Constable Ndlovu had been informed that a case of rape against a minor had been opened against Buthelezi, and decided to visit the school to interview the nine-year-old and other potential witnesses.

Ndlovu had taken a statement from another teacher, Ms Mkhize, because the young girl had said this teacher had witnessed the alleged rape. However, Mkhize denied that she had seen any such incident, and even though the officer had no reason to disbelieve the teacher, this information was withheld from the magistrate’s court that conducted Buthelezi’s bail application a week later.

The officer also discovered that the nine-year-old had been crying when she got home that day, and that the child had given numerous reasons for being upset.

At first she said her head was sore, then her stomach.

However, when her aunt couldn’t get a comprehensive answer, she began beating her with a belt and then inspected the child’s vagina. It was only then that the child claimed she had been raped. This information too was kept from the magistrate conducting the bail application.

Despite the child claiming she had been penetrated, the medical examination showed no damage to her genitals or hymen – but the court was told the opposite.

The prosecutor and a police witness insisted during the bail application that there was a strong case against Buthelezi, prompting the magistrate to deny him bail. The court was also told that Buthelezi had a criminal history, which was untrue.

For months Buthelezi remained in an awaiting-trial prison pending court proceedings, and a DNA analysis was conducted to determine whether he could be forensically linked to the child complainant.

It was only in August 2012, nine months since his arrest, that his legal team was informed that the DNA evidence had shown no link.

He was only acquitted in mid-December 2012 and finally released after a 13-month prison stay.

The following year, he instituted a damages claim against the police minister, which only concluded at the end of July 2019.

Chetty noted in his ruling how both the prosecutor and police officers involved had conceded in the civil proceedings that they should have presented all of their evidence to the trial and bail courts earlier.

“I am in agreement with the submission that if these facts had been placed before the magistrate (in the bail application) a different scenario would have presented itself to the court,” he ruled.

“The plaintiff was sacrificed to satisfy the need to make an early arrest and keep the offender behind bars, despite the paucity of evidence against him even at the time of the bail application,” he said.

Based on this misconduct the judge ruled that Buthelezi’s detention was unlawful, with both the police minister and national director of public prosecutions held liable, and forced to pay the legal fees of the entire proceedings.

Buthelezi’s lawyer, Viren Singh, said the amount would be argued at a later date, following a full examination into the extent of Buthelezi’s damages.

It seems, however, that Buthelezi’s teaching career was not ruined by the case against him, since, according to Singh, he is an acting principal at a school in his home province.

The NPA’s acting public prosecutions director in KwaZulu-Natal, Elaine Zungu, said the state would not appeal the matter.

“The prosecutor, during the civil trial, told the court that at the time she made the decision to oppose bail, she believed that she had a strong case against the accused.

“It is clear that she subjectively believed that she had done what was correct. No disciplinary action was taken against the prosecutor,” said Zungu.

While queries about the investigating officers’ conduct were sent to the SAPS in KZN earlier this week, there was no response by the time of publication.